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Whale watching in South Africa: A complete guide.

Everything you need to know about whale watching in South Africa

Alex

Alex

Operations & Marketing Development
Published on

31 May 2021

Read time

4 Minutes

Whale Watching South Africa Guide

A whale of an experience

It’s a wildlife experience which can be enjoyed in many different regions of the world, but why is whale watching in South Africa so special?

Nearly thirty different species of whale and dolphin can be seen off the coast of South Africa making it one of, if not, the premier destination you can head to with a great chance of encountering these gentle giants of the oceans. With a vast array of whale watching activities by land, sea or air – there’s without doubt an experience to suit everyone’s bucket list.

Popular species to look out for

Humpback Whale Watching South Africa
Humpback whale
Southern Right Whale Hermanus South Africa 93271054
Southern right whale
Brydes Whale
Brydes whale
Minke Whale 1
Minke whale
Sperm Whakle
Sperm whale
Orca Sa
Orca - ok not a whale exactly but exciting to see

When to go

Sardine Run Featured
the best whale watching season coincides with the famous sardine run in south africa

Whale watching season coincides with winter in South Africa, starting as early as May but it really starts to make a splash around late June and early July, stretching until early December. This is when the majority of migrating pods travel up from the cold waters of the Antarctic, heading north along the eastern coast of Southern Africa as they go in search of warmer waters to breed and also calve off the coastal waters of Mozambique and Madagascar. The migratory route through South African waters isn’t just in one direction, whales will make their way south back towards the nutrient rich waters of the Antarctic right the way through to early December.

The whales’ migration northwards also coincide in some months with the Sardine Run which happens between May and July where billions of South African sardine spawn in the cool, nutrient rich waters of the Agulhas Banks before heading northwards in search of warmer waters – a remarkable sight to behold in itself. Especially with super-pods of whales and dolphins as well as sharks and diving birds following and feasting on the immeasurable number of sardines.

Images Blog Sardine Whale
whales gorge on bountiful sardines
Shark In Sardine Run
the sardines attract all manner of marine predators

Where to go

The whales’ migratory route, both north and south takes them through several of South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas along the south and east coast such as Table Mountain National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Sardinia Bay, Addo, Pondoland and Isimangaliso, to name just a few. Here are some of the best places to watch whales in South Africa.

False Bay – Cape Town

False Bay
False Bay near Cape town

False Bay, near Cape Town got its name because long before GPS was invented and used in sailing, mariners of old returning from long sea voyages from the east confused this stunning bay with the now more famous Table Bay along the coast. Home to colonies of Cape fur seals, a great place to surf and of course on the migratory route of Humpback, Bryde’s and Southern right whales during the winter months. Whale watching can be done two ways, either from one of the long sandy beaches which little the crescent shaped bay or by chartered whale watching boats.

Where to stay Tintswalo at Boulders

Dine With The Best Views Of Boulders Beach
Tintswalo at Boulders
Tintswalo Boulders Beach Kaapstad 16
Penguins at Boulders Beach

Hermanus

Sa39A Whale Watching Hermanus
watching whales from the shore in hermanus

Located only a short 2.5 hour drive from Cape Town, Hermanus offers arguably some of the best land-based and boat whale watching in the world, which unsurprisingly makes this lovely town the whale watching capital of South Africa.

Hermanus’ culture is so enveloped around the whales that they hold an annual Whale Festival and they have the only ‘Whale Crier’ in the world who blows a horn to mark the arrival of the marine visitors and has a responsibility locating and staying with the whales as they visit for the season.

Where to stay in Hermanus – Birkenhead House

Whale Crier 3
the whale crier of hermanus
Birkenhead House
birkenhead house - hermanus

Overberg, Southern Cape & De Hoop Nature Reserve

Overberg Coastline
Overberg coastline - south africa

Further along the coast from Hermanus this area extends through the Cape Agulhas which is the southern most tip of Africa and where two oceans meet – the cold waters of the Atlantic and warmer waters of the Indian intermingle, making it a big draw for the migrating whales.

The area off the coastline has been declared a Whale Sanctuary Marine Protected Area which means that no unauthorised boats of any kind are permitted during the peak courting, breeding and calving season between July and November.

Nature lovers looking for true escapism should venture to De Hoop Nature Reserve and the world-famous De Hoop Dunes which are renowned as an epic whale watching spot. Relax in the midst of unspoilt surroundings and watch the gentle marine giants through binoculars as they calve, breach and lobtail (tail slap).

Where to stay - Morukuru Beach Lodge

De Hoop Dunes
sand dunes of de hoop
Morukuru Beach Lodge Main
Morukuru Beach Lodge

Plettenberg Bay and the Garden Route

Cedarberg The Plettenberg Experiences Around Us Ocean Blue Safaris Whale Watching 50
whale watching around plettenberg bay

This magnificent stretch of the South African coastline hosts migrating whales during May and June as they travel north and then again during their return migration during October and November. There are some resident whales species which can be seen year round such as Bryde’s and even occasionally orca as well as bottle nose and humpback dolphins (yes, you even get humpback dolphins!).

One of the most popular places to visit in the area and experience whales is the striking Plettenberg Bay with its swirling estuaries, wide empty beaches and steep wave struck cliffs – you can just imagine the raw beauty of the area. And just to top it off, ‘Plet’ has a breeding colony of Cape fur seals. Whale watching trips from the seaside town can be by boat, kayak and aircraft with viewing distances strictly monitored to minimise interference to the whales.

Where to stay in Plettenberg Bay – The Plettenberg Hotel

Humpback Dolphin
humpback dolphins
The Plettenberg Exterior Sea View
The Plettenberg hotel

Eastern Cape

Eastern Cape South Africa
Eastern Cape South Africa

Between May and December the Eastern Cape hosts all manner of marine visitors such as otters and dolphins – it’s also the time when humpback and southern right whales pass through the area on the migratory route and can be seen almost daily. On occasion it’s even possible to see the whales from the shore, watching their antics through a pair of binoculars.

Not only is the area popular for whale watching it is also a beach-filled haven, with unspoilt natural surroundings and enjoys some of the longest sunshine hours on the eastern coast. For those looking for a little adrenaline-filled adventure, there are superb water-sports facilities up and down the coastline. Don’t forget your kite surfing gear!

Where to stay - On the Beach Guesthouse

Kite Surfing South Africa
Kite surfing in South Africa
On The Beach Guesthouse
On the Beach guesthouse - eastern cape

Wild Coast

Wild Coast Sa
wild coast south africa

A little further north of the Eastern Cape lies the Wild Coast – regarded as one of South Africa’s most spectacular and rugged regions. Rocky coastline, indigenous forests, mangrove swamp, secluded coves and a plethora of river mouths emptying into the Indian Ocean.

The migrating whales don’t tend to come as close to the coastline here as they do in other areas – so if you’re wanting to see whales from land, it’s best to climb a high vantage point with a good pair of binoculars and scan the waters off the beautiful coastline.

As the name suggests, this area is an unspoilt wilderness with much of the coastline being virtually inaccessible to all but those that are prepared to hike or venture on horseback. But all is not lost, there are some lovely, charming lodges some of which have direct access to the secluded beaches of the Wild Coast.

Where to stay – Prana Lodge

South Africa Wild Coast Horse Safaris Beach
explore the wild coast on horse back
Prana Lodge Wild Coast
prana lodge on the wild coast

Kwa Zulu Natal

Isimangaliso
isimangaliso wetlands park coastline - kzn

While Hermanus and the Southern Cape areas may get the most hype – it’s the Kwa Zulu Natal coast which can easily boast the highest number of whale sightings with humpback whales being frequently seen. From late June and early July right the way through to November, whales migrate north to the warm Indian Ocean off the Mozambique coast and then return south to the nutrient rich waters of the Antarctic.

Whales follow the Mozambique Plateau continental shelf and in KZN it passes so close to the actual shoreline that whales can often be seen from the beaches but for a more up close, personal and rewarding experience it’s certainly worthwhile booking a whale watching excursion from the sleepy, relaxed town of St. Lucia which is located in the heart of the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, which in itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where to stay – Makakatana Bay Lodge

Kzn Whale Watching
whale watching in KZN
Makakanta Bay Lodge
Makakanta Bay Lodge - KZN

Interview with Capt. Berno Philipson – Whale Watching Boat Captain

Berno Philipson
Capt Berno Philipson

It’s not every day you can spend time with whales, unless you’re very lucky – I caught up with good friend, Captain Berno Phillipson, who has been involved with whale watching and research for nearly twenty years – twelve of them being Captain of his own whale watching boat on the eastern coast of South Africa in St. Lucia, Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN). He’s that good at what he does, he can track whales as they swim underwater…

What makes whale watching in South Africa so good?

“Whale watching in South Africa is so spectacular because of the massive diversity that can be found along the coastline. Along the east coast we have the continental shelf which is basically the whale migration hi-way.

The larger part of the hump-back population will migrate along this shelf and in KZN it brings them right into the shores near St. Lucia where it is a calving and mating area, breaching humpbacks can often be seen from the beach as they compete for females.

Over the years in St. Lucia and working with whale I have seen so many species; Humpback, Minke, Brydes, Long and shortfin pilot whales, Orca, False Killer And Pigmy Killer whales, Southern right, and Sperm whales… not to mention the dolphin species which are also found along the coast. So, as you can see the diversity is something really special”.

Whale Watching Encounter Kzn
encountering humpback whales in KZN

Why is tourism and whale watching important to whale conservation?

“Whales are most likely one of the biggest conservation success stories of our generation – with several species going from the brink of extinction to healthy populations around the world.

Whale watching in general helps to raise awareness of whale conservation throughout the world, and how the oceans are so dependent on what we as a people do in general. There are numerous threats to our oceans such as pollution, spillage, plastic and so on that put the lives of marine life not just mammals at risk.

By creating awareness through the whale watching industry and educating people about the plight of the oceans, the industry plays a key role in this and will hopefully remain doing so. So, education is the key to conservation and tourism plays that very vital role in this case.

Southern Right Whale Conservation
tourism plays an important role in whale conservation

The dream of conservation is not one that I share alone, there are so many others with passion and the will to do better to work towards a future for our children, and my hope is that through education we can realise the dream of one day seeing a success story with other endangered animals like the we have seen with whales over the last 10 years.”

What makes whale watching special for you?

“When you look at the greater scheme of things, I have come to realise that with all that exists in the world, we as humans are not at the top of the food chain but we are simply the caretakers and have a moral responsibility to ensure that we look after this planet. Whales to me are a sober reminder of this responsibility and every year I look forward to the return of the whales and with their increasing numbers it shows that there is hope that we as a people, will conserve other areas that need it so badly and that the plight of the planet might become a passion to everyone. I am one of a fortunate and select few that can say I am living my dream - doing what I love, spending time in the company of whales and educating people about these magnificent creatures”.

Advantage Whale Watching Trip
whale watching tour st. lucia, kzn
Whale Watching Boat
heading out on a whale watching tour

Whale watching boat experience – what to expect

Imagine yourself here… you are on a whale watching boat just off the coast of South Africa, the skipper of the boat has located a pod of whales in the distance when all of a sudden near to your boat a female humpback breaks the surface of the water with a giant breach filled with raw power and majesty it almost seems to be happening in slow motion. It may sound like the stuff of fantasy, but this is certainly possible, I’ve even heard a story where a humpback whale has rested its tail on a boat for a moment leaving those on board astounded with their close encounter with such enormous yet gentle creatures of the ocean.

Whale Watching St Lucia
boast based whale watching in south africa

Generally, boat whale watching experiences last around three hours with your skipper and guide giving you brilliant information on the different whale species you can encounter, explaining about their behaviour and of course about all the other marine life you may come across – think of it as an Ocean Safari!

Boat based whale watching experiences are certainly weather dependent, if the seas are too rough the trip will either be cancelled or postponed until there are calmer waters. This is for safety reason especially if your trip begins with a beach surf launch.

If you’re taking photography equipment with you, make sure you bring something waterproof to safely keep it protected when not in use.

For those who are susceptible, make sure you get hold of some seasickness tablets and take them at the appropriate time before your trip – I’ve seen a few guests who have spent a good portion of their whale watching safari hunched over the side of the boat and ‘feeding the fish’.

All respectable and licenced whale watching operators will have strict safety measures in place and provide life jackets which they will insist on being worn for the duration you’re at sea – after all, safety is paramount. Some whale watching operators will also have a minimum age restriction (usually around 12 years old) – again this is for safety reasons so it’s best to check to in advance of booking a tour to avoid any disappointment.

What to wear

Whalewatchingsa4
whale watching - life jackets are a must for safety

Boat-based whale watching takes place on the ocean and while it may seem obvious, make sure to wear something warm and waterproof on your top. For your legs and feet, this will all depend on the size of the boat you will be going on. If you’re going on a smaller boat, wear trousers which you can roll up and shoes which you don’t mind getting wet. If you’re uncertain, check with your whale tour operator to see what they recommend you wear.

Breaking down the whale watching lingo

When you head to South Africa and go whale watching there’s a few key words that your guide will use, so why not embrace your inner Marine Biologist, get ahead of the game and learn them before you go – that way you’ll know exactly what to look out for whilst you’re out on the water.

Breaching – Rising and breaking through the surface of the water sometimes in spectacular style.

Interesting fact: When whales breach, they do this for a number of reasons, a) communication b) males do this to show off and compete for females c) they’re cleaning themselves – they shock of the impact helps to remove dead skin and parasite, in effect they’re giving themselves a bath!

Blowing/Spouting – Exhaling air at the surface of the water through their blowhole, which is accompanied by a spout of condensed water vapour - this is part of the normal breathing pattern of whales.

Whale Breaching
Humpback whale breaching
Humpback Whale Spouting
humpback whale spouting
Whale Fluking
whale fluking

Lobtailing – Lifting the tail vertically above the water and then slapping it on the water’s surface causing a loud slapping sound, another means of communication for whales.

Spyhopping – Lifting the head above the surface of the water as far as the flippers – basically having a good look around.

Logging – lying in the water with the back and head above with the tail below.

Whale Lobtailing
whale lobtailing
Whale Spyhopping
whale spyhopping
Whale Logging
whale logging

How to arrange your whale watching safari

Whale watching along the coast of South Africa is the perfect compliment to a big five safari and hopefully this guide has given you some insight and inspiration – all that’s left to do is to speak with our South Africa travel experts and start planning your complete safari adventure.

Wondering when you visit South Africa? Take a look at our guide on the best time to visit South Africa.

Looking for some more inspiration? Take a look at our best safari holidays ideas, our favourite family safaris, our big five safari guide or our top African safari honeymoon suggestions.

Call us today on 01768 603 715 to find out more or enquire here

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